April 2014



 

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36th Ulster Division Memorial Association

Apprentice Boys of Derry

Armagh Unionist Centenary Committee

Confederation of Ulster Bands

Democratic Unionist Party

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland

Independent Loyal Orange Institution

Progressive Unionist Party

Ulster Volunteer Force Memorial Regimental Band Association.

Somme Association

Ulster Bands Association

Ulster Defence Union 1893

Ulster Unionist Party

West belfast Athletic and Cutural Society

The Gunrunners

Lord Carson took personal offence at some of the remarks that were now being levelled at the UVF but particularly by those in the House. After the mutiny by British Army officers at the Curragh nobody doubted the support that existed at all levels of British society for the Ulster Unionists and their stand against Home Rule. Indeed it was now well known to many that Carson intended to take direct action against any attempt to force Home Rule on Ulster and it's people. He intended to establish a governing parliament with a direct link to Westminster and he intended to use the UVF, if force was needed. There were many in the opposing parties who doubted the effectiveness of the UVF. It was known that they were un-armed and this led to ridicule and abuse. Much of it was caused by pictures of the Volunteers drilling with old mop and brush handles instead of rifles. The Belfast Volunteers even had wooden rifles and this just added to the derision that was levelled at the Ulster Unionists. Once again however, they were being grossly underestimated. The UVF had by 1914, been drilling for a considerable time and had a very well organised command structure. Despite the distinct lack of arms, the volunteers had been trained to very high level. The ex servicemen in the higher ranks ensured that the raw recruits were turned into highly skilled soldiers. These skills were to be put to the test when the Ulster Unionists put a plan into operation that would deliver 20,000 rifles and 2 million round of ammunition to Ulster and it would require the mobilisation of the entire UVF organisation. It worked spectacularly well and those early derogatory opinions of the UVF would be changed forever.

 

 

Arming the volunteers

It would, however, be foolish to imagine that the UVF had been reliant on wooden rifles until the spring of 1914.In many of the rural areas, the periodic threat of Home Rule over the past decades had led to the presence of guns in cupboards or under beds, in houses of Ulster loyalists. In the Waringstown area, farmers had regularly fattened extra pigs to get money for guns. Especially popular was a Webley pistol which had been issued to British officers in the Boer War. The first semblance of training in the use of guns, around Lurgan and Portadown was provided under the guise of sporting gun clubs when, of a Sunday afternoon, townspeople who were unused to guns could obtain training at the hand of farmers who were in the Volunteer movement and were well acquainted with the use of firearms. Some of the models which turned up in the early UVF were mid-nineteenth-century muzzle rifles with gunpowder and ball and a high degree of inaccuracy. Other antique shotguns would prove equally inaccurate and when modern rifles did begin to arrive a whole new, more accurate, standard of musketry had to be achieved. The smuggling of guns had been taking place on a haphazard basis before 1914. Guns came in on fishing boats to ports such as Kilkeel, and were hidden in boxes of herring. Colliers also landed guns, to be entrusted to someone specially delegated for the task on the quayside. Volunteers in the village of Waringstown, County Down, received rifles smuggled to the province in these ways, then sent by train to Lurgan; a carriage would be diverted down by Brownlow Terrace from where there was easy access for a local lorry driver who would then deliver the precious cargo around country areas.

However, the numbers of guns getting through were inadequate to meet the needs of the UVF, especially now that a watch was being kept on key British ports, following the discovery that the gun-running had become a standard practice. An intensive campaign by the Customs authorities had seen many weapons and munitions captured, so the go-ahead was given to an enterprising and influential figure in the Belfast Volunteer hierarchy, Major Frederick Crawford, to endeavour to buy a very large consignment of rifles on the continent and ship them en masse direct to Ulster. Crawford, a former artillery officer in the British Army, had been involved in the Volunteer movement since 1911 and had built up contacts with a German, Bruno Spiro, which was to prove invaluable. The so-called business committee of the UVF approved Crawford’s plan to buy 20,000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from Spiro in Hamburg, acquire a suitable steamer in a foreign port and bring the weapons back to Ulster, perhaps with a secret mid-voyage transfer to some other vessel. It began on the 30th March 1914 when Danish Customs officials seized the papers of the SS Fanny, but the vessel had sailed on into international waters during a storm. On the night of the19th/20th April its cargo of 216 tons of rifles and ammunition was transferred to the SS Clyde Valley off Tuskar Rock in Wexford. What happened next would ensure the name Clyde Valley would be remembered by loyalists for centuries to come. 

 

However, the numbers of guns getting through were inadequate to meet the needs of the UVF, especially now that a watch was being kept on key British ports, following the discovery that the gun-running had become a standard practice. An intensive campaign by the Customs authorities had seen many weapons and munitions captured, so the go-ahead was given to an enterprising and influential figure in the Belfast Volunteer hierarchy, Major Frederick Crawford, to endeavour to buy a very large consignment of rifles on the continent and ship them en masse direct to Ulster. Crawford, a former artillery officer in the British Army, had been involved in the Volunteer movement since 1911 and had built up contacts with a German, Bruno Spiro, which was to prove invaluable. The so-called business committee of the UVF approved Crawford’s plan to buy 20,000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from Spiro in Hamburg, acquire a suitable steamer in a foreign port and bring the weapons back to Ulster, perhaps with a secret mid-voyage transfer to some other vessel. It began on the 30th March 1914 when Danish Customs officials seized the papers of the SS Fanny, but the vessel had sailed on into international waters during a storm. On the night of the19th/20th April its cargo of 216 tons of rifles and ammunition was transferred to the SS Clyde Valley off Tuskar Rock in Wexford. What happened next would ensure the name Clyde Valley would be remembered by loyalists for centuries to come.

 

Operation Lion - 24th - 25th April 1914

The gun-running was planned secretly and scrupulously and the operation was code-named Lion. On the night of 24 April 1914 there was to be a training exercise in the form of a test mobilisation of the UVF under cover of which the County Antrim Brigade was to take over the port of Larne, whilst the Clyde Valley docked there and unloaded. Both the Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary were informed and chose to take no action against the UVF believing it to be just that a training exercise. They happily stepped aside as the UVF advanced on Larne. Many lorries and cars assembled in the town and waited with engines turning, to collect their parcels of guns and deliver them to secret locations in their home areas. There was however one problem the UVF still had to resolve. The Customs officials would not be so easily stopped. A cunning plan was hatched to fool them which worked very effectively. In Belfast, Volunteers were to endeavour to draw attention away from the Larne operation: they were to march a contingent to the docks where the SS Balmerino would arrive in what would be a decoy run, a great effort was to be made to frustrate the Customs authorities in their attempt to search the vessel, adding to the suspicion that she contained arms for the waiting Belfast Volunteers.

On the night all went according to plan. The UVF took control of Larne under cover of darkness, and column after column of vehicles approached the port, past checkpoint after checkpoint. Men from the local UVF battalions had been placed at key points along the highways to guide drivers unfamiliar with the roads. At certain points there were reserve supplies of petrol and tools for possible breakdowns. It was a cold wet night at Larne and many of the men involved had already done a day’s work but by the time the Clyde Valley had pulled into the harbour, the headlights of 500 motor vehicles were flaring in the Antrim town. Lorry drivers were soon on their way with their clandestine cargo. At Larne two local ships were loaded with guns for Belfast and Donaghadee, and soon the Clyde Valley was heading for Bangor on the Down coast where a further, smaller consignment of guns and ammunition was unloaded. By 7.30, as Bangor came awake the last cars were leaving the pier with their cargo, and at Donaghadee and Belfast the guns had also been quietly slipped ashore. The Clyde Valley operation had been an unqualified success. It was the first time the entire Ulster Volunteer Force had been mobilised and it worked like clockwork.

 

The Guns are distributed

 

The weapons were soon being secreted in stockpiles across Ulster. Stewart-Moore and his Volunteers had spent a disappointingly dull night guarding Stranocum village. They were to prevent police from entering the village, but there was no sight of the RIC through the night. At 4.30am tired and sleepy, they were ordered home. The next afternoon, Stewart Moore drove to Stranocum House and found his uncle James, revolver in hand, organising a group of men who were loading a car with bundles of rifles, done up in canvas. They had originally been delivered at 7 a.m. but a disturbing report had come through that there were five policemen fishing on the river nearby, with only one fishing rod. It was decided swiftly that the rifles had better be distributed around the country for safekeeping. Moore put a bundle of guns under a rug on the floor of his cart, stopped briefly at a neighbour’s for afternoon tea, then returned home, where with stifled excitement, he and his sister hid the rifles after nightfall in an unused loft above the scullery. Shortly afterwards the guns would be handed out to his Volunteers for the first time. Outside Crossgar, Co. Down, Hugh James Adams and John Martin lay in a ditch along the main road, awaiting the guns from Bangor. When the weapons finally arrived, early in the morning, they were taken to Tobar Mhuire for swift distribution to a variety of locations. Bundles were placed in carts and taken quietly to houses in and around the village, where they were hidden under floorboards until further orders arrived.

In Lisburn Hugh Stewart, who had originally been forbidden by his father from joining the UVF, found his night’s duties hard going, and as he lay out on Moss Road, on guard, he fell asleep. However, the guns were safely brought in and stored in buildings around the town. Stewart recalled how he had got his old dummy rifle for 1s.6d. and had been proud of it too, but was keen now for one of the real guns and a shinning bayonet. At Springhill, Co. Londonderry. the Lenox-Cunningham’s were instrumental in getting the guns to their area. On the Friday of Operation Lion orders came by despatch rider for the Lenox-Cunningham’s to mobilise their men that night. In the dawn of the next day the squadron of cars pulled into the motor-yard with their newly landed rifles. The women of the house had been up all night preparing food and now a hot meal was ready for drivers and their helpers who had motored the fifty miles from Larne.

Armed and ready

The guns that were landed were mainly German Mauser and Austrian Mannlicher rifles with the majority being sent to Belfast, Antrim and Down, with some further afield to Derry and Tyrone. There were also several thousand Vetterli rifles of Italian make which were distributed in Armagh, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Londonderry. This was a major military operation that involved all currently active units of the UVF. A very impressive operation indeed. Never again would anyone criticise the UVF who were now regarded as one of the most well trained military organisations of the day. The Ulster Volunteers could now be seen openly drilling with their new rifles and represented a considerable body of fighting men. Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was now forced to abandon his plans to disarm the UVF. Carson and the Ulster Unionists were now more determined than ever to see their plan of opposition to Home Rule carried out especially when the ranks of the UVF were swelled when the YCV had been incorporated as an integral part of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

 

 Crawford, Agnew and Spiro standing.        

Donaghadee harbour - unloading the guns.                 

 

Guns were also smuggled to Ireland through the mainland.

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